Why you should care

Because it’s wine country with not-so-fancy food, light traffic and lots of sheep. And Pinot Noir.

Anderson isn’t a valley that typically makes the short list when travelers are planning a California wine vacation. Likely it’ll be Napa, Russian River or Santa Ynez (thank you, Sideways). But something’s happening in Anderson Valley — from the stature of its Pinot Noirs and the boomlet in the valley town of Philo.

First, a little California-wine lingo. Whenever something is super low-key in a good way, locals say, “[Fill in the blank] is the way Napa used to be.” This is meant to time-trip the listener back to the bucolic 1970s, when Napa, a mere village of 25 wineries and many barns, bested French wine in a blind tasting in Paris. When we say, “[Fill in the blank] is so Napa,” we are referring to today’s limo-clogged roadways that lead to 430 wineries, a few of which charge $15-plus for a tasting.

Anderson Valley is the way Napa used to be. The region, squeezed in on the west side by Hendy Woods State Park and redwoods, with the Navarro River trickling nearby, is about 100 miles north of San Francisco. It has about 30 wineries, nearly a quarter of them offering sparkling wines. And its towns of Yorkville, Boonville, Philo and Navarro are so unpopulated that you wouldn’t even know you were in one if the speed limit didn’t drop from 55 to 30 mph. Boonville, the main town, is about four blocks long.

The rubber definitely hits the Pinot-Noir road in terms of the quality of wine: Some of the best producers — Littorai, Copain and Ant Hill Farms — use grapes from Anderson Valley. Awarded wineries Drew, Foursight, Toulouse and Balo operate tasting rooms here.

vineyards in northern california

Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley, Calif.

The valley’s natural, agrarian beauty is what first attracted Jim Roberts to the area 25 years ago. He owns The Madrones — which sits on land that was once a rural homestead and repair shop — doubling its size in August to include an inn, gardens, four tasting rooms and a restaurant. Bink, Drew, Knez and Signal Ridge wineries have opened in the Madrones compound within the past four years; and last year, an alumnus of San Francisco’s esteemed restaurant Gary Danko opened Stone & Embers. There’s also a dovecote, complete with exotic doves.

The family-owned wineries don’t face the same pressure as larger wineries that try to appeal to a certain customer.

One thing Anderson Valley is not? Fancy. Seeking vine-etched tableware, hammered artisan jewelry, designer candles or wine-flavored taffy? That’s so Napa. No star chefs or highly composed plates here. Restaurants, like Table 128, are in the middle of nowhere, like lights dotting a dark country road. You can get a brisket sandwich at the Boonville General Store. Or sample your vino on a picnic table. The tasting rooms at Balo Vineyards have two professional bocce ball courts. “It’s just a really relaxed setting,” says tasting-room manager, Ivan Jimenez.

The family-owned wineries approach their craft with what Roberts calls an “independent spirit.” He says that they don’t face the same pressure as larger wineries that try to appeal to a certain customer.

But is Anderson Valley now the better choice for wine tourism? “[It] will never become the Napa Valley and vice versa,” says Pamela Heiligenthal, co-founder of Enobytes.com, an online wine publication. Because the climates of the regions are so different, so are the wines. Heiligenthal, a wine buyer and former sommelier with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, adds that both regions produce stellar wines: Anderson Valley’s are “lighter and more acidic” while Napa Valley’s are more “full-bodied and robust.”

Leslie Nguyen-Okwu contributed reporting.

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